Partners in the Global Economy
01 February 2001

Globalization has become the defining issue for the new century, and big business is not unaware of its social, ethical and global responsibilities.

Big business is one of the world's most influential forces. By 1998, 51 out of the 100 largest economies were not nation states but corporations1. Today, General Motors is bigger than Denmark; Toyota bigger than South Africa. Yet, at the beginning of the 21st century, the gap between the world's rich and poor is wider than ever.

In 1999, the UN reported that the world's then three richest people--Bill Gates of Microsoft, the Sultan of Brunei and the Walton family of the Wal-Mart retail chain -- were worth more than the combined gross domestic product of the world's 34 poorest nations. Today, some 1.2 million people live on less than $1 a day. Half the world's people survive on less than $2 a day. 'The most pressing moral, political and economic issue of our times is third-world poverty,' editorialized The Economist2 in September 2000. 'Can anyone doubt that this is the greatest moral challenge facing humankind?' posed commentator Timothy Garton Ash, after attending the 2001 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland3.

Globalization has become the defining issue for the new century, and big business is not unaware of its social, ethical and global responsibilities. In 1998, British Prime Minister Tony Blair described his vision for the 21st century as 'reconciling themes which in the past have wrongly been regarded as antagonistic--patriotism and internationalism; rights and responsibilities; the promotion of enterprise and the attack on poverty and discrimination'4 [His italics]. In 1996, before he was elected to government, Blair called for a 'stakeholder economy', in a speech to the Singapore business community. He described it as one in which 'opportunity is available to all, advancement is through merit and from which no group or class is set apart or excluded'.

The idea that businesses have stakeholders other than just the shareholders--such as employees, customers, suppliers, joint venture partners, the wider community, and increasingly the global village--is not new, at least in the West. Such ideas are still largely alien in some former Soviet bloc countries which lived for 60 years under a command economy, and in which the very idea of markets, quality and service to the customer are relatively new. But in the West, large corporations have increasingly been calling in the big auditing firms, such as KPMG and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, to audit their so-called "triple bottom line"--not just the balance sheet but also their environmental, social and ethical impacts.5 Professor David Wheeler, former Director of Sustainable Development at KPMG, describes this trend towards corporate social responsibility as 'one of the UK's most vibrant new growth industries'. Recently, 'partnership' between employers, employees and suppliers has also become the buzz word for good business practice, the British Trades Union Congress making 'Partners at work' the theme of its 1999 conference.

In recent years, I have reported the annual Caux Conference for Business and Industry, held each year in the Swiss Alpine village of Caux, near Montreux, as well as the Caux Round Table (CRT) gatherings of senior exectives. CCBI, founded in 1973, says its mission is to 'strengthen the motivation of care and moral commitment in economic life and thinking, in order to create wealth and jobs, correct economic and environmental imbalance and tackle the root causes of poverty'. CRT was first convened in 1986 by Frederik Philips, who had just retired as Chairman of the Philips electronics multinational of Eindhoven. His concern was to avert a growing trade war by bringing together senior Japanese, European and American executives in an informal trust-building network. The group's Principles for Business was published in 1994, with input from Britain's Institute of Business Ethics and the Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility. It also incorporated the Japanese concept of kyosei, interpreted as 'living and working together for the common good of mankind'.

Published in 12 languages, the Principles have been quoted widely in business and academic books and in many ways have stimulated the debate about the corporate world's social and ethical role in the global economy.

Putting principled business leadership into practice is, of course, easier said than done. What are needed are examples of best practice in action--companies and individual business people who are prepared to look beyond the bottom line of the balance sheet to their wider responsibilities and who 'walk the talk'.

Something further still is needed if industry is to fulfil its role, not just as the great provider of goods, services and jobs but also in building a more just world order. A moral and spiritual dynamic, reflected in the lives of business people is required, which touches inner motivation and gives vision, wisdom and insight into people and situations. 'It is self-evident,' writes Finnish businessman Paul Gundersen, for many years an executive in the Nokia group, 'that without an inner motivation, which stretches beyond group interest, it will become impossible to solve our most urgent problems--such as ethnic conflict, environmental problems, mounting unemployment and the reshaping of the former Communist world.'6 'The most important decisions of our business lives,' he adds, 'are the choices we make about our personal values.'

The stories in this book go some way towards illustrating this inner dynamic, including the appeal to conscience. They tell of business people's concern for the environment, unemployment, industrial partnership, poverty and social justice. They show that, in an era of globalization, the individual can be a powerful agent for positive social change. They draw from the evidence of Caux as well as from other stories first published in For A Change magazine and The Industrial Pioneer. They claim to be neither exclusive nor unique. In gathering these stories together, my thanks go especially to Bert Reynolds, publisher of The Industrial Pioneer, for his support and editorial help.

Tony Blair wrote: 'The rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe; rights and opportunity without responsibility are engines of selfishness and greed. Human nature is cooperative as well as competitive, selfless as well as self-interested; and society could not function if it was otherwise... all our lives are enriched--or impoverished--by the communities to which we belong.'7

Not all the people quoted in this book would necessarily agree with Blair's politics. But in many ways their example supports these convictions.

1. 'The Stakeholder Corporation', David Wheeler and Maria Sillanpa, Pitman, London, 1998.

2. 'The Case for Globalization', editorial, The Economist, 23 September 2000.

3. The Independent, London, 31 January 2001.

4. 'The Third Way--New Politics for the New Century', Tony Blair, Fabian Society, 1998.

5. See article 'Called to Account', Time Magazine, July 1999

6. 'Incorrigibly Independent--a Finnish life' by Paul Gundersen, Caux Edition, 1999, p152.

See also Mary Lean's profile of Gundersen in For A Change magazine, Oct-Nov 1999.

7. 'The Third Way', Tony Blair, Fabian Society, 1998, p4.

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0